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So, how bad is that Chinook (king) salmon decline in Alaska that we told you about in the August issue? It is so serious that the U.S. Department of Commerce has declared the king salmon fisheries in several major Alaska watersheds a failure, making commercial fishermen eligible for disaster relief. The disaster declaration covers the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and Upper Cook Inlet, including the Kenai River. The amount of money involved had not been decided by Congress as this issue went to press, but it is sure to be substantial, as losses to Cook Inlet users are expected to be as much as 90 percent of their historical average. Losses elsewhere may be as high.
As regards sportfishing losses, we have heard about trip cancellations at some lodges that are heavily dependent on kings. At one major lodge we understand an entire party simply demanded to leave during the middle of a week they had booked specifically to fish for kings. If your trip was affected by the decline in kings this past season, please file a report. Just be aware that we feel as bad for the lodges and guides caught up in this problem as we do for the anglers involved, provided that pertinent information was not withheld by the lodge.
As we reported in the August issue, the really troubling thing about this decline is not the short-term impact; it is the fact that no one knows why it is occurring. There seems to be a broad consensus that the problem is not with Alaska’s river systems. Instead, something seems to be happening to the salmon in the open ocean. There is some talk about a predator imbalance at sea as well as underreported bycatch by offshore trawlers. Another possible cause is a variation in ocean temperatures that goes by the name of Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Alaska salmon, it seems, are negatively impacted by a cooling trend in ocean temperatures.
If you want to really dig into this subject, the following article in Alaska Dispatch will furrow your brow for sure, www.alaskadispatch.com/article/biologists-look-ocean-clues-alaska-king-salmon-collapse. In it, the author, Craig Medred, discusses current theories about the decline and then goes on to recall a mysterious salmon decline in the late 1800s that was so severe that missionary Sheldon Jackson asked congress for help with the cost of transplanting reindeer with which to feed Alaska residents. The state was then home to fewer than 65,000 people, Medred points out, about two-thirds the number of people now living in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. “Fishing techniques were primitive,” he writes. “It is hard to believe man was having a huge impact on the resource at the time, and yet there were few fish.”
Medred goes on to refer to an 1896 letter from a missionary in Unalakleet, Alex Karlsen, describing the hardship many residents were experiencing as a result of the decline in salmon. The missionary says the local people were coming to him for an answer to what happened to the salmon.
“Karlsen had no answer,” Medred writes. “And more than 100 years later, there’s still no answer. Sometimes the fish do not come back simply because the fish do not always come back. Alaska has grown far more sophisticated than it was in Sheldon’s day, and yet the riddle remains.